Why do I go to Japan to learn about tenkara?

On August 15, 2013
Comments (15)

I’m leaving to Japan tomorrow morning. And, you may rightfully ask, “who cares that you’re going to Japan, Daniel, yet again, to ‘learn tenkara’? Tenkara is just about fishing with a pole, line and whatever at the end.”
About 5 years ago I visited Japan for my first time and learned about tenkara. I bought a tenkara rod, brought it back and soon decided to share it with people outside of Japan. Thus I became the first person to introduce tenkara to the USA and beyond with the creation of Tenkara USA. But I quickly realized it is not just a rod that I brought back, but the entire tenkara story and philosophy and something that could actually add value to how people approach the water and how people connect with nature.
I believe it has been fundamental to maintain the connection of tenkara to Japan and share the tenkara story with anglers here. I feel that I didn’t create just another rod company; I wanted to introduce a simpler method of fly-fishing that inspired people to fly-fish, simply and naturally.

But, why go to Japan to learn about tenkara?  Why should anyone care about how they practice tenkara in Japan? Why does it matter? Good questions.
Why spend all that money and tremendous amount of energy and time to go to Japan and spend time fishing? This is the best time of the year to sit back here and fish. I could spend the next few weeks with my wife and our dog, fishing my brains out at the perfectly good streams within 10 minutes from home. As new competitors come in selling or planning to sell their tenkara rods, with no understanding of the method and probably doing okay sales-wise, I could just stay back and work on other things…more marketing, more sales, more outings, shinier rods.

Of course, visiting Japan gives me a valuable opportunity to share the latest rod designs I’m working on with my teachers, and get their instant feedback on the rods. We have worked on numerous tweaks on each of our rods as a direct result from these trips together.
But, in addition, I believe there is something to tenkara that can’t be learned or shared otherwise. I believe the long-time practitioners of tenkara have a lot to teach us, especially on how to keep fly-fishing simple. And, I believe that connection to Japan, which allowed me to bring the method of fishing that you all enjoy to the US, is important. I believe tenkara, as it is practiced in Japan, can show us to keep fly-fishing simple and how to maintain its effectiveness without relying so much on equipment. While it is not necessary to go to Japan to go tenkara fishing or to learn how to cast a fly and catch a fish, there are some principles of tenkara that can be brought over to us and that can add value to how we approach the water and nature. That’s what I like sharing.

In the next few weeks, as I travel throughout Japan, I’ll be sharing with you the tenkara story. Why? Because the principles of tenkara can set the foundations to keeping fly-fishing simple yet effective; and because the way tenkara is practiced in its country of origin holds the key to a very liberating method of fly-fishing.

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15 Responses to Why do I go to Japan to learn about tenkara?

  1. Daniel, great video as always. One thing I struggle with is the dichotomy between there “being a lot to learn” and the fact that tenkara is so “simple”. i.e. if it’s so simple, how can there be so much to learn? People challenge me with this all the time and I’m not sure how to answer.

    I’ve even been posed the question of how much could you possibly write about a rod, line, and a fly. Personally, I feel like there is an infinite amount of content that could be written about tenkara. There is a lot of room for experimentation with lines, flies, techniques, etc. But I have a hard time conveying that message. I’d love to hear your take on that.

    Have a great time in Japan and I look forward to you sharing your story with the rest of us!

    • Jason, thank you for that message. Indeed that dichotomy of “simple” yet “a lot to learn”, is one that is difficult to convey. Yet, I find myself learning a lot every time I spend time with teachers.
      I have read or heard others putting their thoughts on the idea that something simple still have a lot of nuance to it.I did a quick search for

      “Simplicity is difficult to master” to see what would come up and here are some interesting quotes. I will reflect on this a lot over the next few weeks:
      “One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” ― Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums
      “Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful.” ― John Maeda, The Laws of Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life

      Maybe it is not important to go to Japan and maintain that connection…maybe this should be my final trip to learn about tenkara from teachers in Japan. But, I also have a hard time reconciling the dichotomy of “it is just fishing” with how I feel about tenkara.

    • Jason, I think it may also have something to do with mastery of something.
      Have you seen “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”?
      It’s very interesting how they approach something arguably simpler than tenkara.

  2. Michaela says:


    When you are passionate about a subject ,you also become passionate about learning everything about it, even if its simple.
    Enjoy your trip to Japan, I look forward to you sharing with us what you learn about Tenkara.

  3. Dale H says:

    Great video Daniel. As I watched the video, I began to think about how you mention the simplicity of it and relying on our techniques. It has made me think about my season so far. I have done more with less flies (and tying materials), even less than last year, and I am catching far more fish and enjoying myself greatly. I carry a selection of kebari, one beadhead nymph that I have great faith in and one fly for warm water fishing that has proved to be pure dynamite. Relying on my technique and simple 3″ x 5″ fly box has made a river that I used to despise into on of my favorites!

    Jason, this is one heck of an interesting thought:

    One thing I struggle with is the dichotomy between there “being a lot to learn” and the fact that tenkara is so “simple”. i.e. if it’s so simple, how can there be so much to learn? People challenge me with this all the time and I’m not sure how to answer.


  4. Daniel, I have! Awesome documentary.

  5. Adam says:

    Daniel, I visited Japan on a quest for Tenkara because of you. I saved and saved (I make about as much as a Hardware Store employee) and my trip was delayed by the earthquake and tsunami. The time finally came to go and I did and now months have past since I went. I learned a lot while traveling the Central Mountain with my Japanese friends. I chose one style of fly to use, just as you describe, and I fished it in headwaters through to mainstreams. My fishing was productive. As I spent time with Master Sakakibara, I learned that I was the third American to visit Japan on a Tenkara quest. In order to learn Tenkara, one does not have to visit Japan. You only have to practice it yourself. But by going, it is like flying the plane yourself vs. being a passenger. You are still flying. A quote comes to mind, “the higher we soar, the smaller we appear to those that can not fly.” Thank you for teaching me (and the rest of us) to fly. Have a great trip and don’t worry about the hornets. Can’t wait to read about your adventures. When I read them, they now become part of mine. Take care.

  6. Matt "statikpunk" Donovan says:

    Daniel to be honest I look forward to your trips to Japan, I think, about as much as you do. every year I patiently wait for the first blogs from Japan to roll in.
    What excites me about them is not that i am going to learn some untold nugget about fishing. What excites me is the other stuff that goes along with that fishing. The fishing festivals, the girl cleaning the fish with a bamboo skewer for shioyaki, the snake skin flies, zenmai ferns, and so forth.
    I think a good way to describe tenkara is that its like chess. it will only take me a few minutes to teach you “the moves” but its only with a lifetime of practice can you truly learn to master those “moves” thus the conundrum, easy yet always learning.
    I think in all things that we are passionate about we are all looking for the “more” I have hunted and fished for years and I am always looking for the “more” that is to say that there is more to it for me than just the act of hunting or fishing, collecting game animals has become secondary in my mind to the actual act of doing it.
    That is why I think you will always take trips to Japan, because you, like many other passionate devotees, are not just searching for a better fishing method, you find yourself on the search for “more” If the goal was to simply catch more fish, well then you have achieved that, but when you get right down to it, that’s not really the goal now is it 😉

  7. Timmy says:

    Ok folks, i know in tenkara it is “each to his own”. But some thing that i have personally struggled with (and i know it sounds petty and foolish) but we give a lot of credence to our Japanese “masters” which im all for BUT, is the fact that “our” master, Dr.Ishigaki uses a WESTERN reel fly fishing vest and western “knee pads” used in western construction!??! How in the world doe’s that represent the Japanese original tradition??????? Wheres the bamboo hat, fish basket and “simplicity” of real Japanese tenkara fishing???????

  8. TJ Ferreira says:

    For what you know and take into your heart, you are in danger of becoming…..

    Surround yourself with those that take a similar path and there is always room to learn more. Even if you don’t technically learn a specific cast or technique on every trip, you still bring back that special tenkara feeling that has driven you since 2008.

    Therefore trips to Japan will always be of great value.

    Your passion has taken you to Japan again, so listen to your heart and follow it.

    If you take too long between trips, you may lose some of that focus that started you on the tenkara path in 2008.

    Your goal has always been to teach it as shown in Japan and to stay by those guidelines as much as possible. I am afraid if you stopped going to Japan, you may lose some of that. We may all lose out a little if you did.

    I am happy to go in your place next year if you feel you can skip one year. heheehe. I am sure John would to. 😎

    Although Margaret will have to go with us as we would be like dumb and dumber in Japan if we went alone. 😎


  9. TJ Ferreira says:

    Tim, I think you answered your own question. We each have our own comforts and we do what we feel is best.

    Japan is a very technically savvy country, and they make some kick butt stuff. The neat thing is folks from Japan seem to hold onto teachings from the olden days yet bring in some modern convenience at the same time. They seem to do things that simplify what has become un-simple. At least that is how I see it.

    So if someone wears a certain clothing like a fly vest, then they feel that is how they want to play that day. That though did not change how he fished.

    What clothes you wear does not define what method of fly fishing you practice. In fact, wearing Knee Pads…. that seems to be a very Japanese thing. I myself have never seen a picture of a western angler wear knee pads like Dr. Ishigaki.

    Often you see pictures of Japanese anglers in Japanese magazines wearing no waders but just water style quick dry pants and these shin/kneepads to protect their legs. I actually own a pair and they work great.

    Too bad USA based fly shops do not carry them. At least non that I have found.


  10. Jeremy says:

    Daniel I really enjoy checking out the blog entries. With a trip to Japan the blog is enriched with an exotic mix of Japanese culture that I find fascinating. The sharing of Tenkara through your efforts and the forum members feels like a virtual Tenkara fly fishing club to me. Keep up the good work and enjoy yourself, we await your fun findings.

  11. martin says:

    I’m glad that a discussion about simplicity in its philosophical context can generate so many responses, and most of them coincidental.
    Simplicity requires mastery and discipline. Most of us live a complicated world which we make more difficult. Try to simplify your life as much as you can, like Tenkara fishing. I challenge you to live a simpler live, in every sense. Again, it requires a lot of self-discipline which is a life commitment that we master through trial and error, i.e, experience and the experience of the masters.
    Daniel, you’re the one that have done the most for Tenkara in the U.S., and I’m glad that you still travel to Japan to learn more about this simple way of fishing which simplifies our lives. Great blog. Kudos!

  12. Bruce says:

    In traditional Tenkara, one does not change the fly, but the focus is on reading the water, feeling what the trout are telling us and presentation techniques. Since streams and trout are quite dynamic, reading conditions and adjusting presentation can be quite challenging and complex. Techniques that worked last year, last week or ten minutes ago may stop working, so new presentation patterns are required.

    Books and the web are a great place to learn about the tiniest details about tying fly patterns. Presentation patterns need to learned on stream. Because a tiny adjustment in presentation can make an enormous difference, learning presentation patterns that match micro technique with micro conditions is best learned on stream from a master.

    Have a great trip. I look forward to your posts!

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